The problem with “liberal Mormon”

February 5, 2007 | 54 comments
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The problem with “liberal Mormon” is not the liberal Mormons, whoever they might be, but rather the term used to classify them. It seems to me that the term is used as a catch-all for at least five mostly unrelated things.

“Liberal Mormons” sometimes refers to Mormons who are liberals in the vulgar sense of the warped American political spectrum, people who tend to vote for Democrats or have warm feelings towards the welfare state.

As far as I can tell, however, “liberal Mormon” doesn’t usually refer to Mormons who are working-class labor organizers. “Liberal Mormon” has many of the connotations of “Lexus liberal” or “liberal academic”: white, privileged, educated. Sometimes “liberal Mormon” is interchangeable with “Mormon intellectual,” someone who has a better than average acquaintance with issues in church history and theology.

Often, “liberal Mormon” is a matter of scriptural interpretation. “Liberal” in this sense sometimes seems to apply to anyone with less than an ultra-literalist understanding of scriptural historicity. As with “originalists” and “constructionists” in constitutional law, “liberal Mormons” are supposed to line up for an anything-goes, whatever-gets-you-through-the-night reading of inspired fiction, while the alternative is unyielding insistence on a 6,000-year old Earth (not including the recycled planets with dinosaur fossils in them). Like the terms “originalist” and “constructionist,” “liberal Mormon” in the scriptural sense probably obscures more than it enlightens.

A fourth sense of “liberal Mormon” is roughly equivalent to “progressive,” someone with a sense that the church or its leaders or teachings are in some way imperfect or unjust, and that these deficiencies should be identified so that they can be corrected.

Finally, “liberal Mormon” is sometimes the equivalent of “libertine Mormon,” someone for whom some or all of the church’s standards or commandments are optional.

Apart from lumping together people who might strenuously object to the association (qui bono?), “liberal Mormon” seems fated not to label an opponent of “conservative Mormonism” (which barely exists as a category), but rather to identify the opposite of “orthodox Mormon.” That would not be a good thing for anybody, no matter how they read Genesis, Job, and Jonah.

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54 Responses to The problem with “liberal Mormon”

  1. Angry Mormon Liberal on February 5, 2007 at 10:15 am

    Being one of the princes of unclear prose, I have a certain sympathy for those so afflicted. However, I couldn’t make heads nor tails of this, primarily because I fit in all the categories (even the working class background…lol)

    Coming from outside the US, (and outside the Mormon South in Alberta) you’ll find that liberalism/conservatism has few boundaries by race or socioeconomic status. There is a Caribbean member of the High Council in my stake who extremely conservative, many of the South Americans are Socialist to Marxist in one way or another, and it goes on and on. The non-transplants in my ward almost couldn’t think outside of voting for the Liberals (I vote Green if your interested…lol) Of course the leadership positions largely go to those who are Utah-friendly but not always. There aren’t enough Mormons around for the false issue of Liberal and Conservative to make a difference. My own particularly radical political views have served no ill purpose to my involvement in the church.

    Vive le Canada

  2. Doc on February 5, 2007 at 11:05 am

    AML,
    You are probably right from an international perspective that the label is pretty meaningless as mormons can be found all over the map in Right/Left politics, and that its meaninglessness will probably kill the conflation with all things non-orthodox. But here in the US, I think it is a real problem. There is a tendency to demonize anyone who falls in any of the above categories regardless of their testimony, commitment, and life. I agree with Jonathan, this issue has really started to nag at me, having been attacked for taking any side in an argument that has nothing to do with faithfulness but expresses a desire to change some of the less desirable aspects of Mormon culture. I think a sixth category for liberal mormon is someone who refuses to conflate politics and religion and is willing to voacalize descent towards the former as held by a large number of “mainstream” Mormons who overextend their worldview to be what the Church “is.”

  3. Russell Arben Fox on February 5, 2007 at 11:12 am

    AML, you make some good observations, but I think it should probably go without saying that most of what Jonathan describes wouldn’t make sense outside of the dominant American Mormon context. And, of course, that context is dominant because…well, because of where BYU is, and where Salt Lake City is, and who most of the general authorities are, and who most of the writers for FARMS and Sunstone and the Ensign are, and so forth. Given that reality, Jonathan’s attempts to disentangle the meanings of “liberal” for Mormons are quite necessary.

    Jonathan, this is an excellent schematic analysis; I like it. I particularly like how you suggest the real opposite of “liberal” in contemporary American Mormon parlance to be “orthodox”–a term which similarly is used to communicate being a Republican/socially conservative in one’s politics, and/or being a literalist/Joseph-Fielding-Smith disciple in one’s scripture reading, and/or being really strict about the whole don’t-drink-Coke thing, etc., etc. We really could use a general cleaning up of our collective terminology, but I don’t see exactly how we could accomplish that anyway.

  4. Matt W. on February 5, 2007 at 1:02 pm

    The Whole Liberal or Conservative idea is even false in American Politics, and only more so in the false set ups of some factions of the church. I’ve never heard President Hinkley divide us by who is liberal, heterodox, orthodox, or conservative. I think it is because such terms, in there multiplicity of meanings, have come to mean nothing.

    I’m a Liberal Mormon, I believe in Church Welfare, helping others, and liberally sharing my religion.
    I’m a Conservative Mormon, I believe in Self Reliance, staying out of debt, and in following the prophet
    I’m an Orthodox Mormon, I believe in the First Vision and that the Book of Mormon is what it claims it is
    I’m a Heterdox Mormon, I drink caffeinated soft drinks, believe in evolution, and don’t teach my lessons straight from the sunday school manual.

  5. KyleM on February 5, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    I think the “liberal Mormons” want differentiation from each other, but I don’t think the orthodox Mormons give a rip about what kind of liberal Mormon anyone is.

    To the typical socially conservative, orthodox Mormon, is there any difference between what makes a “liberal Mormon” liberal? All liberals are heretics in their eyes. How much difference is there between a libertine Mormon, a feminist Mormon, a “progressive” Mormon, and a democrat Mormon? It’s just a different kind of sin.

    I used to wonder how any “liberal” Mormon could be or would want to be a part of the church. Why would “they” want to be in a church they didn’t agree with? Why did they want to change the church? How could they reconcile their beliefs with what is taught in the church? It wasn’t until my own radical change in thought that I finally understood.

    I now tend to agree with Matt that making things binary in relation to people is futile. I believe, though, that most people try to make everything binary.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on February 5, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    “I now tend to agree with Matt that making things binary in relation to people is futile. I believe, though, that most people try to make everything binary.”

    So…you’re both substantively in agreement with Jonathan’s post, right? Since his whole point is that the commonly heard (at least in some quarters) description “liberal Mormon” is anything but a straightforward signifier in a simple binary (and, by extension, the same could be said about “orthodox Mormon” as well).

  7. HP on February 5, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    Not to rock the boat, but President Joseph F. Smith was not a literalist. He was, as are we all really, occasionally literalist and quite often doing the NCT speculation thing. There is no inarguable scriptural evidence for many of his beliefs.

  8. TMD on February 5, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    While you can logically distengle the five parts, I’m willing to bet that a (hypothetical) factor analysis would place the last three into the same group, and if “mormon intellectual” includes the personal use of the latter label, then probably the last 4. (So, I’m saying everything except the actual politics go together.)

    And generally, it seems to me that the underlying concept is a refusal to accept everything in church doctrine. (Note that I say doctrine, not culture. I’m not from Utah, and suspect it would seem rather foreign to me.) So, it is motivated by the same thing that makes some Catholics Cafeteria Catholics.

    Hence, you would be correct in noting that the opposite is indeed orthodox as opposed to conservative.

  9. bbell on February 5, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    I was about to write a comment like #4.

    Most active LDS have complex beliefs not easily defined in simple terms.

  10. Lamonte on February 5, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    Thank you Matt W. for pointing out the error in my ways. For years I have accepted my conservative (politically) fellow ward member’s interpretation of me as a liberal because I choose to admit that I vote for and argue in favor Democratic positions on many issues. But you have helped illustrate that I am everything you claim to be. And I know some self proclaimed conservatives who are exactly the same as well. Thanks again.

  11. Kaimi Wenger on February 5, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    From Kirby’s classic piece about the Five Types of Mormons:

    The first kind of Mormon is the Liberal Mormon, this includes all Mormons who attend church only when they feel like it. Liberal Mormons anywhere to the left of the Republican Party, are not rabidly pro-life and don’t think every word that falls from the lips of a General Authority represents the actual personal opinion of Jesus Christ. Liberal Mormons are going to hell. Just ask any of the other four kinds of Mormons. On the other hand Liberal Mormons think the intolerance and naive stupidity of other Mormons is more of a threat to mankind than Russian missiles, wheat weevils or ‘R’ rated movies.

  12. Otto on February 5, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    Didn’t someone in the ‘nacle a few years ago come up with a bi-polar (!) schematic for classifying mormons, with political spectrum (liberal to conservative) on the X axis and doctrinal orthodoxy (orthodox to heterodox, or literalist to, I dunno, Unitarian) on the Y axis? So if you’re a member of the John Birch society but read scripture as metaphor, you’re X=10, Y=-4, or something.

    And perhaps to encompass additional categories, we could add a Z axis plotting orthopraxy? So, if you’re convinced caffeine is wrong (Y=8) but can’t kick the habit (Z=-8)… Likewise, say you think premarital sex is okay (Y=-10) and you have lots of it (Z=-10); or say you think it’s okay (Y=-10), but can’t seem to get lucky (Z=10)…

  13. mami on February 5, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    I wish we could just drop all the terminology, for the very reasons Jonathan writes–People will argue it helps us define our ideas–but terms like orthodox and liberal define nothing. When I think of orthodox Jew and try to compare it to so-called orthodoxy in Mormonism, I see little analagous. The same could be for other terms like “reformed”.
    It seems to me it makes people feel a lot smarter or more intellectual to throw around such terminology, while it would be much simpler and better understood by everyone, if, like Matt W. state, we simply explained our feelings on issues, etc, without lumping people into groups there would be better understanding and less stereotyping.

  14. KyleM on February 5, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Re: 6

    I do agree with Jonathan that there is a problem with the term “Liberal Mormon.” I don’t know what we do about it, though. It’s a catch-all term used by people who want to categorize people in a binary manner.

    I’m a liberal Mormon because I have a goatee.

  15. Geoff B on February 5, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    I’m sincerely curious when such issues as being a “liberal Mormon” come up in terms of day-to-day interaction with other members. I’m pretty active in Church and have lots of meetings before and after Church, etc. I simply cannot remember the last time I had a political discussion or discussion of orthodox vs. liberal doctrine in person with somebody who was an active Church member. (Of course, I have these kinds of discussions on the bloggernacle every day, but that’s partly because they don’t come up at Church for me, and I’ve got to argue with somebody somewhere :))) ).

    Let’s see: 9 a.m. to 10:15: sacrament meeting. Politics don’t come up at my ward. Ever. Except for the once every two year reading of the encouragement to vote. 10:15-11:05: Sunday School. Never comes up. 11:10-noon. Priesthood. Football seems to come up every Sunday, but politics/orthodox stuff never.

    I socialize a lot with ward members, probably every other week there’s a dinner or social event. I have lots of Church-related meetings but we’re mostly talking about missionary work or home teaching, never really discuss politics.

    I wonder if anybody else has the same experience I do — I just don’t see this happen very much in Church on a regular basis and most people don’t seem to care if you’re a liberal or conservative or whatever.

  16. Dave on February 5, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    It’s worth reflecting on how rarely Mormons self-identify as one of these subgroups. I’ve never had anyone introduce themselves saying “Hi, I’m a conservative Mormon” or “Hi, I’m an orthodox Mormon” or even “Hi, I’m a liberal Mormon.” If those are all terms we use to describe some subgroup of Mormons that we don’t feel we belong to and probably don’t respect much, that explains why the terms are so contentious and why it is hard to use them in a descriptive rather than a derogatory way.

    The biggest problem with the term “liberal Mormon” is that many Mormons are unable to distinguish political liberals from religious liberals, when in fact one can be a religious liberal but a political conservative.

  17. Christian on February 5, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    “President Joseph F. Smith was not a literalist.”

    Fundamentalists rarely are true literalists; they claim to be going back to basics, but their image of the past is a lot more creative than they give themselves credit for.

    I think that if the pligs hadn’t seized onto the word fundamentalist, that we’d see more of those we call “Orthodox” mormons latching onto that term. I personally call them “Latter-Day Pharisees,” since they seem to want to build a hedge about the law, they try to speak for the church as a whole, and they polish the graves of dead prophets while ignoring when convenient the moderating statements of the living prophets.

    I more or less fit Jonathan’s first four descriptions of “liberal mormon” but I strongly reject applying the term to myself, because that term would lump any intellectual or politically liberal LDS person with the group that I’d rather call the Latter-day Sadducees. You know who I’m talking about, right? Those that deny basic principles of the church, identify themselves as “mormon by culture,” and suck up to the occupiers.

    Between those two groups, I don’t like to qualify or hyphenate. Yes, some are more politically conservative or liberal; some tend to overemphasize the iron rod while others tend to overemphasize the liahona in our interpretations, but we’re all members of the same church. It’s only a few bad apples that actually deserve a whole new name, like the Latter-day pharisees who attempt to hijack the church, or the Latter-day Sadducees who seem out to cultivate their own little cults on the fringes.

  18. Jonathan Green on February 5, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    AML, I think your comment supports my point: “liberal” and “conservative” are so warped by US politics that the American usage stops making sense outside US borders.

    I’m not quite saying that all categorical terms, or even all binary distinctions between people, are bad. Some are useful, despite the endless variety of human difference. Within American politics, “liberal” is a useful term. A term to embrace and be proud of, even. But the point of politics is precisely to organize and coherently express a particular viewpoint in opposition to others. However, that is more or less the antithesis of what the church is about. Even if there were a way to divide members into left and right, my argument with “liberal” specifically is that using that term will undercut most of what a liberal Mormon might want to accomplish.

    Matt W., I like your point about President Hinckley. If I could push your analysis a bit, I don’t think we haven’t heard him talk about liberal vs. conservative not because the terms are meaningless, but because his goal as prophet is to achieve the opposite of that division.

    TMD, various degress of scriptural non-literalism–and it comes in many shades–are, I agree, probably positively correlated with education level. I’d dispute that any other aspect of “liberal Mormon” is inherently related, or that rejecting one or more items of doctrine is the common denominator. The polygamy dead-enders, who can hardly be called liberals, also reject various current teachings.

    Geoff and Dave ask similar questions about when “liberal” actually comes up. It’s a good question. Mormon Democrats only get recognized as such when the Gospel Doctrine or priesthood teacher strays off the reservation to talk about the role of government, tax rates, foreign policy, or a few other favorite topics. Intellectuals and non-literalists run into similar problems but at different times. Most of the lessons in the manuals are constructed so as to minimize arguments about historicity, but a teacher who assumes otherwise can leave class members choosing between disagreeing or sitting on their hands. (Complainers and scofflaws usually don’t self-identify.) Even if it’s only an Internet thing, the role of the Internet in creating and organizing a distributed group identity makes the question more pressing than it used to be.

    KyleM, good catch. “People with goatees” definitely deserves to be a special category of liberal Mormon all its own.

    Otto, I continue to insist that the only multivariable definition of Mormons that makes sense is according to Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin.

  19. Veritas on February 5, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    I too, am sick of the paper-bag syndrom. That is, trying to lump everyone into a one-word definition written on a paperbag over their head. Who cares about these labels? They serve no purpose but to divide.

    re: #15 – In my current ward politics never comes up. But, I have been in those nightmare situations in the past where politics was in the lessons and talks every Sunday, including actual heavy campaigning by actual candidates. It was pretty frustrating and I actually moved just to get out of that ward (but not after I mentioned it to the Bishop and Stake Pres). That being said, I have never heard a ‘liberal mormon’ be discussed ever, in any ward in any context.

  20. Christian on February 5, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    “the point of politics is precisely to organize and coherently express a particular viewpoint in opposition to others. However, that is more or less the antithesis of what the church is about.”

    Bravo, Jonathan. Excellent point about the absurdity of pligs technically fitting the category. I suspect that you are right that President Hinckley does not address the conservative v. liberal mormon division “because his goal as prophet is to achieve the opposite of that division.” IMO this should also be our goal as true members of the church.

    Agreed also that “Mormons with goatees” seem to be yet another category of this strange beast called “liberal mormon,” which makes me five out of six rather than four out of five :(

    This whole “liberal mormon” nomenclature seems designed to divide the church by lumping educated and intellectual mormons with apostates. When you think of it that way, it’s not hard to guess who came up with the idea. I understand what it’s like to feel alienated from the church community by education, from questioning common assumptions, and from resisting fads. But let’s not add to the problem by buying into a group identity that traps other good members of the church out, and lumps us in with apostates that reject the most basic church doctrines.

  21. Angry Mormon Liberal on February 5, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    Ah good… It’s so nice to have the recognition emerging that ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ mean vastly different things outside the US (and even Western US) conception of them.

    I do have to admit that part of my self identification as a ‘Liberal Mormon’ is to irritate the Mormons of Southern Alberta who elected a member of the Christian Heritage Party to the provincial legislature. (From my perspective that’s like voting for David Duke)

    So perhaps the self-identification as Liberal has more to do with a desire to distinguish oneself from the dominant political paradigm in Mormon culture?

  22. mami on February 5, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    Now, Jonathan, could you do a post on the term “Mormon Intellectual”?

  23. KyleM on February 5, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    “So perhaps the self-identification as Liberal has more to do with a desire to distinguish oneself from the dominant political paradigm in Mormon culture? ”

    I would disagree with that. I am a social conservative, but I have a goatee and had missionaries over to watch the superbowl with my family.

  24. KyleM on February 5, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    “Mormon Intellectual”

    That would be interesting. Espeically the refrences to the “so called Moron Intellectual” ones.

  25. Christian on February 5, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    “I do have to admit that part of my self identification as a ‘Liberal Mormon’ is to irritate the Mormons of Southern Alberta who elected a member of the Christian Heritage Party to the provincial legislature.”

    Do you really think your language really “irritates” the Mormons who voted for the Christian Heritage Party? Seems to me that when you identify politically liberal views by qualifying your religious affiliation, that you *confirm* their views that “real mormons” vote conservative.

  26. Jonathan Green on February 5, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    Sorry, mami, Nate has already problematized the definition of Mormon intellectual.

  27. mami on February 5, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    Oh–that was long before I discovered the blogs–I’ve missed so much!

  28. jjohnsen on February 5, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    “Let’s see: 9 a.m. to 10:15: sacrament meeting. Politics don’t come up at my ward. Ever. Except for the once every two year reading of the encouragement to vote. 10:15-11:05: Sunday School. Never comes up. 11:10-noon. Priesthood. Football seems to come up every Sunday, but politics/orthodox stuff never.”
    I think this shows you don’t live in Utah, the only place I’ve had politics come up during meetings. The following things have happened while I’ve attended church in various wards from Orem to Logan.
    1. Testimony meetings with people telling us how lucky we are to live in state watched over by Republicans so we aren’t overcome by liberal ideas (abortion/homosexuality/iced tea).
    2. An EQ president telling us that voting Democrat is akin to burning your temple recommend.
    3. A SS teacher reminding us that voting for a certain bill was going against the church, but she was sure we already knew that.
    4. Using time in EQ to mock a non-member household in the neighborhood that had a Vote Gore sign, then suggesting someone should relieve them of the burden of keeping it in their yard (surprise, it was gone a few days later).
    5. Testimonies about how HF wanted us to go to Iraq so it could become the new center of the gospel in the Middle-East (which was then parroted in EQ, with the teacher telling us we’d be preaching the gospel there within a few years).
    6. A teacher pointing me out with disdain when I didn’t raise my hand to the question “Raise your hand if you’ve written your congressman to tell them you don’t support gay marriage”.
    7. A personal revelation that George Bush would sit at the right hand of God upon his death by a member of the Bishopbric.
    etc, etc, etc.
    Ok, that last one was fake, though I’ve heard many people say what a righteous man who was called of God Bush is.

    Now I’m sure I noticed these things because I oppose them, maybe they weren’t any big deal. But it was noticable enough to make me and others uncomfortable. Again, I can’t remember politics entering church outside of Utah.

  29. jjohnsen on February 5, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    I don’t want it to seem like I’m exaggerating. Those things in #28 have happened in the past 8 years, so it isn’t a weekly thing. But it does happen more than I’m comfortable with.

  30. Angry Mormon Liberal on February 5, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    The way that I act and the language that I use will do little one way or another to confirm to the denizens of Cardston, Raymond, Magrath and Aetna that ‘Real Mormons’ vote for wacky right wing candidates. Their already doing that. My fun comes in making them as uncomfortable as they made me growing up.

    I think many of the ‘liberal’ fringe of Mormons are pessimists at heart. I know that I have somewhat given up hope of changing some individuals (and the above mentioned towns) minds regarding political and social issues. I think those of you striving for the middle ground have a far more optimistic outlook on your chances…I wish you good luck but I think your going to fail. Indeed I would love for you to succeed, to have those barriers broken down. But until then, (and if it ever happens) I find quite a bit of comfort and enjoyment in my self identification as a the dreaded”Liberal Mormon” just as my forefathers had in their identification as “Mormonites”, police officers have with their identification with the “Pig” pejorative and the Beat generation did with the term “beatnik”.

    Christian and Johnathan. Do you think that you could end the prejudicial attitudes? Those who self identify as ‘orthodox’ Mormons appear to me only to be cafeteria Mormons of a different stripe. They eat at the creationism buffet while others peruse the evolution plates. And neither one can say their the official line of the Church.

  31. mami on February 5, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    AML
    “Christian and Johnathan. Do you think that you could end the prejudicial attitudes? Those who self identify as ‘orthodox’ Mormons appear to me only to be cafeteria Mormons of a different stripe. They eat at the creationism buffet while others peruse the evolution plates. And neither one can say their the official line of the Church.”

    It appears to me that rarely do people self-identify as orthodox–but are much more likely to be labeled as such by those that distinguish themselves by identifying themselves as something-other-than “those” orthodox types. The prejudicial attitudes come from both sides.

  32. Christian on February 5, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    “The way that I act and the language that I use will do little one way or another to confirm to the denizens of Cardston, Raymond, Magrath and Aetna that ‘Real Mormons’ vote for wacky right wing candidates. Their already doing that.”

    If you identified yourself as an unqualified “Mormon” while arguing for politically liberal views, that would truly pose a challenge to those people.

    “My fun comes in making them as uncomfortable as they made me growing up.”

    That’s ironic. It seems to me that by marginalizing your views as the views of a “liberal Mormon,” you’ve helped to create a structure that confirms their prejudices.

    I don’t think that I can end prejudicial attitudes, but I can help others realize that those attitudes aren’t the heart and soul of the church. I can resist the continued silent coups of the Latter-day Pharisees by refusing to let them lump me with the Latter-day Sadducees.

    When an LDP uses a church position to teach their little LDP cult doctrines, you’ve got to hit them hard, but *not* from the left. Push *them* to the margins. For example:

    [ very calmly, with a benign smile on your face]: “Brother Priestcraft, what you just said, ‘voting Democrat is akin to burning your temple recommend’ violates the Brethren’s express policy that we not use the church to advocate a specific political party. What you said is not in harmony with gospel teachings.”

    “Sister Scurrilous, I certainly did not “already know” that voting for that bill was,”going against the church.” I don’t recall any message from the brethren on this matter. Could you please provide an official church reference?”

    Here’s one I specifically used. [Context was, someone brought sticks of chewing gum and passed them around unwrapped, through everyone's hands, and then asked who still wanted to chew the gum. They then used that disgusting metaphor to argue that even though someone might repent from sexual sin, that no one would want to marry someone who had sinned in *that* way.]: “I can’t imagine a doctrine that Satan would rather have taught in church than the message that someone who has committed sexual sin — or been raped — is beyond the healing power of the atonement and might as well give up.”

    The key is: strike back, but *not* from the left. If you don’t know how to answer them in their own language, then don’t say anything. Better silence than leftspeak, because leftspeak just confirms their position.

  33. Christian on February 5, 2007 at 7:17 pm

    “The prejudicial attitudes come from both sides.”

    I agree. Some of the same folks that tell me that I’m a liberal mormon when they are trying to recruit me to their little complaining group, turn around and tell me that I’m an orthodox clone when I don’t fall in line with all of their views.

    It’s not just a matter of extremes, either. I know some LDS folks that have far left or far right views but don’t systematically exclude people that disagree with them. And sadly, pride and division sometimes exists even in the political center. There were some at BYU that actually made trouble for one teacher for being too pro-life while attacking other teachers who they thought were too pro-choice. My own views lie somewhere in between but I don’t see why we should even think about saying that pro-life activism or pro-choice activism, in itself, should make someone less LDS. Even if being LDS required us to support all church policies, it does not require us to seek to enforce all church policies into law. A pro-choicer might believe the church position that abortion was a terrible sin while believing that the state has no right to regulate. A pro-lifer might accept the church position that a woman might prayerfully decide to terminate the life of a fetus that was created through rape or incest without committing a terrible sin, and yet believe that the state has a valid secular interest for prohibiting abortion. IMO neither of those sisters should be driven from teaching at BYU. I guess from a literalist standpoint, some folks might argue that “university” means the opposite of “diversity” :(

  34. Angry Mormon Liberal on February 5, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    “The key is: strike back, but *not* from the left. If you don’t know how to answer them in their own language, then don’t say anything. Better silence than leftspeak, because leftspeak just confirms their position.”

    Now for those of you who do push for this middle way, turning the left speak on the left and the right speak on the right, do you find yourself sitting on your hands at times?
    I can only speak from my personal experience, but I felt that I was betraying my beliefs when I (and this is my own perception of it) “danced around the issue” like that. The interesting thing about academic language is that it allows me to precisely define what I mean, big words will stand in for entire sentences. So, logically enough, I feel more honest when I’m expressing myself in that way. “Left-speak” feels more honest than the muddy meanings that can be drawn in ordinary speech. The problem here is that one comes across as an arrogant, ivory tower toff. Another alternative that is coming to mind as I write this is that this allows me to draw a veneer of objectivity over the rather nasty business of mixing religion and politics.

    I honestly think your on to something that would be valuable to try, but again, honestly I’m pessimistic about any impact. I really wonder if the so called orthodox/conservative/wingnut have a conception of those they are objectifying as persons. My personal experience, hearing “All homosexuals should be put on a sinking barge and towed out to sea” shortly after my cousin had just come out of the closet. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

    I do see the potential in what your saying, but again…other than making them shut up… is there any hope to woke them up in the shoes of someone that’s not of their exalted socioeconomic status?…lol… You can see why I didn’t do too well at BYU…place nearly drove me out of the church.

  35. Tatiana on February 5, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    The thing that shocks and appalls me is how openly, unashamedly, uncharitable some people from all sides of these issues can be, when surely we all should be doing our best to love each other as ourselves and be one in heart. The issues over which we contend are such minor things, while loving God and each other are what we’ve been taught are the most important things. I can’t really see where there is room for contention over politics or doctrinal points, when none of that matters compared to loving one another. =(

  36. Christian on February 5, 2007 at 11:55 pm

    ““The key is: strike back, but *not* from the left. If you don’t know how to answer them in their own language, then don’t say anything. Better silence than leftspeak, because leftspeak just confirms their position.”

    Now for those of you who do push for this middle way, turning the left speak on the left and the right speak on the right, do you find yourself sitting on your hands at times?”

    Sitting on your hands is probably smarter and safer than what I do. When I say don’t strike from the left, I don’t mean necessarily strike from the center. If you can master the language, it’s even better if you can strike the ultra-conservatives from the *right.* Refute what they said using their own language and values.

    “I can only speak from my personal experience, but I felt that I was betraying my beliefs when I (and this is my own perception of it) “danced around the issue” like that.”

    It’s not dancing around the issue. Angels speak to people in their own language. Even God gives to men line upon line, precept upon precept. If you can’t say something that they understand, then what’s the point?

    I’m not saying make an argument that you don’t believe. I’m saying pick an argument that they will find persuasive, even if it means holding back the argument that *you* would find most persuasive.

    Did you see Schindler’s List? Remember how Oscar Schindler tried to persuade the commander of the concentration camp that being merciful was the ultimate exercise in power? Schindler failed to save that man’s soul, but there were people that *lived* that otherwise would have died, because Schindler made an argument that appealed to that power-sick man. Schindler didn’t lie to him, or betray his own beliefs. What he said is true: mercy is the ultimate display of power. That’s not the best reason for it, but it’s the reason that was most persuasive to that broken and sadistic camp commander.

    If (an admittedly fictionalized) Schindler can persuade a hardened Nazi to show mercy, without betraying his own belief system, can’t you imagine finding *any* persuasive common ground with a fellow member of the church? Even if that ground is less persuasive to you than a more leftish argument?

    “Brother Priestcraft, how would you feel if tomorrow, the headlines said that one of this young men in this priesthood class had taken your statement literally and drowned a group of homosexual men by towing them out to sea on a sinking barge?” Do you think that the stake president and the brethren would be pleased with you once the newspapers printed that the boy said he got the idea in an LDS priesthood meeting?”

  37. Clark on February 6, 2007 at 2:31 am

    “Those who self identify as ‘orthodox’ Mormons appear to me only to be cafeteria Mormons of a different stripe. They eat at the creationism buffet while others peruse the evolution plates. And neither one can say their the official line of the Church.”

    Just as a note, I identify myself as an orthodox Mormon but believe in evolution.

  38. Norbert on February 6, 2007 at 3:28 am

    This post confirms my sense that the further away from SLC one lives, the easier it is to deal with living in the church.

  39. Jonathan Green on February 6, 2007 at 4:11 am

    jjohnsen, thanks for sharing your experiences. The hard part about politics in church is not that someone disagrees with you, but rather that someone feels free to assume that no one who thinks like you do could possibly be in the audience.

    That being said, I think I’d give a pass to things said in testimony meeting. Letting people say anything, absolutely anything at all, usually has good results, sometimes has a lot worse results than a little right-wing politics, and is probably worth the price. As for things said in Sunday School or priesthood meeting, those venues are open to comments and questions. Some people won’t ever realize that politics are out of place until they see that not everyone shares their politics, and they won’t see that if you sit on your hands forever.

    Norbert, and others less directly before him, raises the question: is politics at church just a Utah thing? Not necessarily, but it might be a side effect of living in a large ward or an area where the church is well organized. There are divisions between people much deeper than politics that sink into insignificance in branches and wards that have to struggle for every member. If you need a primary president badly enough, you don’t worry about what her politics are, or her immigration status, or whether she speaks the national language well, or whether her family has a respectable income, or lots of other things that don’t matter.

    Finally, Clark and several other people have brought up the problem of defining orthodoxy. One problem I see with adopting the “liberal” label is that it abdicates interpretive authority over what is and is not orthodox to those who are by definition not liberal, and it lets “non-liberal” stand in as a proxy for “orthodox,” with bad results for everybody concerned. One can wreak a lot of heretical mischief under cover of scriptural literalism.

  40. Christian on February 6, 2007 at 4:29 am

    I don’t think that the whole orthodox/heretical dialectic works for the LDS church.

    I don’t think that we play the whole believe-centered game that other churches do. Eternal life is to know God and his son Jesus Christ. Believing in them isn’t enough. And key to knowing is service, for how can we know the master that we have not served? Beliefs are a minor part of the temple recommend but they are pretty low key compared to other religions. While the sectarians focus on whether a member is a “devout believer,” we talk about whether an LDS member is *active*; whether they do their duty in the church.

    You’re asked if you *sustain* the prophet, apostles, and other GAs and GOs of the church. We are not asked if we believe everything they say, or even if we trust them. Simply do we listen to them, follow their leadership, and refrain from speaking ill about them or denouncing their teachings. When have you ever heard a General Conference or First Presidency speech against “heresy”? It’s really not a big concern. The idea is that if you serve in the church, and hold the basic beliefs, that other details will work themselves out as the spirit works upon your life.

    Mormons are by definition heretical Christians. We’ve rejected the theologies that mingle philosophy and scripture, the orthodoxies of centuries. We believe in modern revelation. We believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things, and God tells us that there are still abominations within the church that professes his name; we are still led astray by some of the mistaken traditions of our fathers, and God will give us more light and knowledge through revelation, line upon line and precept upon precept.

    In that light, for LDS person to say that he’s ‘orthodox’ — right-thinking — actually sets at naught the doctrine of continued revelation. Orthodox is one who says “we have enough, we need no more Bible.”

  41. Russell Arben Fox on February 6, 2007 at 8:30 am

    “When have you ever heard a General Conference or First Presidency speech against ‘heresy’?”

    I never have. However, that does not mean the concept is completely absent in the church. There was Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s “Seven Deadly Heresies” sermon, or then-Elder Ezra Taft Benson’s “Fourteen Fundamentals of Following the Prophet”. Even Elder Dallin Oaks’s “Weighter Matters”, which is much more recent, is essentially concerned with defining “correct belief” for the Saints, though he clearly didn’t mention the ecclesiastical consequences of such.

    True, we talk about being “active,” we insist that we don’t have a creed, we emphasize the participatory and building aspects of our community–but I simply don’t see how a centrally correlated institution like our own, one with an international membership of millions, could possibly avoid the question of “right belief” entirely. Not even extremely close-knit, wholly communal religious societies like the Amish can totally ignore the issue of belief in favor of action; and if they can’t, I don’t think we should pat ourselves on the back for supposedly being able to do so. There is such a thing as Mormon orthodoxy–it’s not nearly as encompassing or firm as Catholic orthodoxy, to be sure; in fact, it’s something of a moving target, and continuing revelation is part of the reason for that, as Christian notes. But pretending it doesn’t exist at all is simply, I think, untrue to the real Mormon experience.

  42. DKL on February 6, 2007 at 11:02 am

    I agree that it’s not very useful to think in terms of conservative vs. liberal Mormons. For my part, I’m politically conservative, but my doctrinal views are all over the map. And I don’t think that mixes of this sort are unusual.

    It really boils down to whether you’re a pro-Jesus Mormon or an anti-Jesus Mormon. Pro-Jesus Mormons are faithful and try to do the right thing. Anti-Jesus Mormons lie in wait to deceive all of us pro-Jesus Mormons and they vote for Democrats.

    I don’t mean to be judgmental, but I honestly don’t think that the anti-Jesus approach is consistent with the scriptures or with the teachings of the prophets, even though some important strides have been made in the anti-Jesus direction recently as the church has struggled to find more universal messages; e.g., “The Celestial Kingdom isn’t better, it’s just different.”

  43. Larry Ogan on February 6, 2007 at 11:11 am

    Is this post a joke? I’m having a hard time comprehending what I’m reading and question if any of it is real. God is no repecter of persons and I’m pretty sure could care less about your political affilliation.

  44. DKL on February 6, 2007 at 11:15 am

    Larry Ogan, please don’t introduce the spirit of contention. It’s very anti-Jesus. What are you, a Democrat or something?

    BTW, the link in your name appears not to work.

  45. mami on February 6, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    DKL–
    Let me be the first to say we are all very glad you poked your head in.

  46. Christian on February 6, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    “When have you ever heard a General Conference or First Presidency speech against ‘heresy’?”

    I never have. However, that does not mean the concept is completely absent in the church. There was Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s “Seven Deadly Heresies” sermon, or then-Elder Ezra Taft Benson’s “Fourteen Fundamentals of Following the Prophet”. Even Elder Dallin Oaks’s “Weighter Matters”, which is much more recent, is essentially concerned with defining “correct belief” for the Saints, though he clearly didn’t mention the ecclesiastical consequences of such.

    “If ye are not one ye are not mine.” I respect the opinions of all of those good men, but when they speak to the general body of the church, without review from the rest of the quorum of the twelve, all they can give is their own opinion. When they begin to transplant entire authentication systems ( like “heresy”) from the Christian sects, without any kind of support from the body of official church doctrine, they aren’t exactly on stable ground. Maybe they are right; maybe not. No doubt it’s worth reading and seeing the church from that perspective. But I’m certainly not going to change the way I speak about church doctrine or other church members based on a talk that is not official church doctrine. That would be the wrong thinking (but not heresy :D ).

    I said “Beliefs are a minor part of the temple recommend but they are pretty low key compared to other religions. … [belief] is really not a big concern. The idea is that if you serve in the church, and hold the basic beliefs, that other details will work themselves out as the spirit works upon your life.”

    Russell replied: “I simply don’t see how a centrally correlated institution like our own, one with an international membership of millions, could possibly avoid the question of “right belief” entirely.”

    Like I said, we *don’t* avoid it entirely. We just don’t use misleading words like heresy that would falsely imply that belief as central to our beliefs as to the religions that use such strange words.

    “Not even extremely close-knit, wholly communal religious societies like the Amish can totally ignore the issue of belief in favor of action; and if they can’t, I don’t think we should pat ourselves on the back for supposedly being able to do so.”

    Like I said, we don’t ignore belief. We simply give belief its proper subordinate and qualified place within our religion. We have thirteen articles of faith and the prophet could only shape twelve of them into “we believe” statements. Ever count the articles in the Catholic catechism? There’s more than thirteen :D

    Latter-day Saints seek to know God through service, prayer and revelation. Our religion is not about belief and other sorts of wishful thinking. Some sort of “Orthodoxy” exists in the church, but the whole orthodox-heretic dialectic brings in more confusion than accuracy when applied to the LDS church. While belief has a certain limited importance, belief is *not* the core LDS identity. We should look for other ways to convey the *relevant* aspects of orthodoxy without importing the sectarian baggage that misrepresents and distorts our doctrines and practices. If some LDS want to adopt the sectarian vice of dividing themselves into classes within the church according to schools of opinion, then let them do so on their own time, rather than the time that they’ve supposedly consecrated to God.

  47. Christian on February 6, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    “Even Elder Dallin Oaks’s “Weighter Matters”, which is much more recent, is essentially concerned with defining “correct belief” for the Saints, though he clearly didn’t mention the ecclesiastical consequences of such.”

    I disagree with that reading, Russell. While Elder Oaks shoots down a few beliefs as inconsistent with the teachings of the gospel, and shoots down others as inconsistent with his own opinion. For example, I wholeheartedly agree with Elder Oaks that the statement that “you can’t legislate morality” is idiotic, since as Elder Oaks says, laws against murder etc. legislate morality. But the fact that I share Elder Oak’s opinion about the nature of secular law does not make me more personally righteous or religiously “orthodox” than the fool who honestly believes that secular guvernment should “not legislate morality.” If I disagreed with Elder Oaks’ position about legislating morality, then I could do so publicly without fear of apostasy.

    OTOH, if the church took Elder Oaks’ position as one of its rare official political positions, that would change the scenario considerably. I would feel far less free to parse and question Elder Oaks’ reasoning if it were an official church statement: “If we say we are anti-abortion in our personal life but pro-choice in public policy, we are saying that we will not use our influence to establish public policies that encourage righteous choices on matters God’s servants have defined as serious sins.”

    What he says is true of many of our courts and leaders of the so-called pro-choice movement, which would not even allow a state to sponsor a licence plate (“choose life”) to encourage women to give birth rather than aborting. But there is a genuine “pro-choice” position that Elder Oaks does not address: an LDS person could decline to trust the government with the power to tell a woman when she can menstruate. An LDS person could believe that the 14th amendment’s reference to persons as born, takes the life of the fetus outside the jurisdiction of an American state, so that the state has no more power to prosecute abortion than to prosecute any murder outside of its borders. An LDS person could believe that prohibiting abortion but creating a rape exception creates a perverse incentive for a desparate woman to claim falsely that she has been raped. Whether you agree with these arguments or not, to my knowledge they do not conflict with scripture, doctrine, or official church teachings. Should we label them as “heresy” because Elder Oaks indicates in that he dislikes the term “pro-choice”? Note that Elder Oaks himself doesn’t use the term “heresy.” .

  48. DKL on February 6, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks, mami. Us pro-Jesus Mormons need to stick together.

  49. Larry Ogan on February 6, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Is pro-choice the same as agency?

  50. Jack on February 6, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    “Is pro-choice the same as agency?”

    It is the same as agency without accountability.

  51. Christian on February 6, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    “Is pro-choice the same as agency?”

    I’ve seen a fairly sophistic argument by some LDS “pro-choicers” that it has to do with agency, and I think that’s what Elder Oaks is criticizing. Some LDS conservatives have their own sophistry, i.e. that pro-choice arguments deny “accountability.” This is an equivocation, since pro-choice state policies cannot deny accountability to God.

    Fact is that pro-life laws don’t stop free agency and pro-choice laws don’t stop accountability. I think we weaken our own testimonies as a people if we pretend that we need the heavy hand of the state to steady the ark of the covenant. And those who turn the pro-life/pro-choice argument into a test of religious orthodoxy are dividing the Lord’s House and shall inherit the wind.

  52. DKL on February 6, 2007 at 9:51 pm

    Christian, the notion that pro-choicers deny accountability doesn’t imply any metaphysical negation of God’s judgment, but rather encourages people to dismiss this as a possible long term consequence.

    Also, when you say, “those who turn the pro-life/pro-choice argument into a test of religious orthodoxy are dividing the Lord’s House and shall inherit the wind,” you introduce yet another test of religious orthodoxy that divides the Lord’s House. Specifically, you divide it into groups of people who use support for abortion-rights as a test of religious orthodoxy and people who don’t. Given the sentiment that you express, your statement just strikes me as self-defeating.

    I agree that it’s pretty preposterous to contend that making something illegal inhibits free-agency — as though nobody ever chose to break the law. If only it were that easy to inhibit criminal behavior.

  53. Christian on February 6, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    “Also, when you say, “those who turn the pro-life/pro-choice argument into a test of religious orthodoxy are dividing the Lord’s House and shall inherit the wind,” you introduce yet another test of religious orthodoxy that divides the Lord’s House.”

    ?? How in the world is that a test of “religious orthodoxy?” Dividing the Lord’s house is not a belief, it’s an action. Orthodoxy is about belief, not about action, To run around without authority, using language calculated to divide and judge the church might be considered a form of *apostacy,* since it’s taking action against the church. But it’s certainly not heresy.

    “Specifically, you divide it into groups of people who use support for abortion-rights as a test of religious orthodoxy and people who don’t. Given the sentiment that you express, your statement just strikes me as self-defeating.”

    That analysis seems oblivious to the basic distinction between heresy (which is not an official LDS church term) and other issues like *apostacy,* pride, and confusion, which are issues that the church certainly does address.

    I really don’t care whether you or others *believe* all that nonsense about orthodoxy or heresy. But those that apply these silly sectarian divisions to the LDS community, in a public forum, are IMO taking *actions* that divide the church. I’m not a GA; I won’t say whether this is apostacy or confusion or just garden variety pride, but it is IMO not in harmony with how the true church operates.

    “the notion that pro-choicers deny accountability doesn’t imply any metaphysical negation of God’s judgment, but rather encourages people to dismiss this as a possible long term consequence.”

    Could you phrase that in LDS terms, without the philosophy of men terms? :P I’m having a hard time distinguishing what you just said from my example of someone that says that we need human law to steady God’s ark.

  54. Christian on February 7, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    [i]“…you introduce yet another test of religious orthodoxy that divides the Lord’s House. Specifically, you divide it into groups of people who use support for abortion-rights as a test of religious orthodoxy and people who don’t.”[/i]

    I don’t understand why you construe that distinction as a “test of religious orthodoxy.” My distinction has nothing to do with religious belief, and therefore has nothing to do with religious orthodoxy.

    An extreme literalist or a playfull smart aleck might construe that I was “dividing the Lord’s house” by observing any distinction between people within the church, but I think that the scriptures are warning us about making distinctions that improperly exclude members from the church, or that set members against each other.

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